The City of Lawton is struggling with a problem all too familiar to most communities — too many projects and not enough money to fund them.
The City has recently commissioned studies on improvements at Lawton’s premier regional park and its two lakes. Improvements to Elmer Thomas Park, as outlined in last week’s edition of The Sunday Constitution, total $25 million. A plan to make improvements at just Lake Lawtonka total $1.4 million. That is just for phase 1, which is for only three projects. It does not include any projects at Lake Ellsworth. (A story outlining the lakes projects can be found elsewhere in today’s edition.)
The City also has deteriorating infrastructure, including city streets and aging waterlines. Last week the City Council approved a plan to seek loans from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to pay for waterline and sewer line upgrades. The loans would be paid back from a permanent half cent that was created in the city’s 2019 Capital Improvements Program. Some of Lawton’s waterlines are more than 50 years old and city crews spend an inordinate amount of time on repairs.
The good news is the city has $6 million extra in sales tax revenue. The question is what to do with that $6 million. City staff has suggested applying some of it to renovations at City Hall. Funding for those renovations is contained in the 2019 Capital Improvements Program, but construction costs have driven up the price, leaving a shortfall.
Some of these projects are “nice to haves”, such as park and lake improvements, while others are “must haves”, such as streets and waterlines. There is only so much money to go around.
Voters approved a 14-year Capital Improvements program in 2019 that contains $10 million for street maintenance. That is just a drop in the bucket to what Lawton needs to fix its arterials, not to mention residential streets. Construction costs have skyrocketed since the CIP was approved. Ten million dollars doesn’t go as far as it did before COVID-19.
The city has commissioned studies on parks and lakes, but has not identified a funding source, although $20 million is in the 2019 CIP for parks and recreation. The only way to fund all these improvements is through another Capital Improvements Program. A nonscientific online poll conducted by The Lawton Constitution shows little support for such action. We asked readers if they would support another CIP to fund Elmer Thomas Park improvements; about 80 percent said no.
We suspect readers, and voters, will say the same to a proposal to fund improvements at city lakes.
The city should continue to see a surplus in CIP funds due to the growth of FISTA and a proposed cobalt refinery in west Lawton. And making an investment in the lakes and parks also will increase sales tax. But first you have to have the money to makes those investments.
So what will City officials do with those extra funds? We hope they will address Lawton’s “must haves” before they address the “nice to haves.”